Does faith in the personal God of Scripture make sense if we acknowledge that we do not have free will? This blog presupposes that we don’t have free will, but argues that far from being a source of anxiety or even a death sentence for faith, our lack of free will may actually be the central point of Scripture and essential to our inherent human dignity.
It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon
because of an eclipse of the sun.
Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle.
Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”;
and when he had said this he breathed his last.
The veil being torn down the middle at the moment of Jesus's death in not merely a miraculous event. In the middle of the story of the Ten Commandments, Moses asks to see God's glory. God replies, "You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." (Exodus 34:20) That said, God offers a compromise, and places Moses in a cleft in the rock and covers Moses with His hand until He passes by. Then God takes away His hand and Moses sees only God's back. There is a seemingly unbridgeable gap between God and humanity. However else we may describe our relationship to God, we have to include enormous asymmetry. Earlier in the story, God instructs Moses to build an extravagant tent of meeting in which God will reside as the Israelites travel from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land. And the holiest part of that tent, where the Ark of Covenant containing the Ten Commandments is to reside, is separated from the rest of the holy space within that tent by a veil (Exodus 26:31-35). When the Temple is constructed, the Ark is placed within a pitch dark windowless cube together with a vessel of the manna God provided in the desert and Aaron's miraculous rod behind this veil. When an angel announces to Jesus's uncle, Zachariah, that John the Baptist will be born, it is behind this veil.
But in addition to asymmetry, our relationship to God is characterized by His proximity. Contrary to God's warning that no one can see Him and live, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being through the night and is renamed "Israel", because he struggled with God and lived. Jacob renames the site of their wrestling match "Peniel" - which means "face of God". Earlier, Jacob had dreamed of a ladder that stretched between heaven and earth on which angels traveled back and forth.
When the veil is torn at Jesus' death, the boundary between heaven and earth that existed from the earliest moments in our relationship to God is breached. This is not a mere magic trick but implies that something extraordinary and unique has happened between heaven and earth. Asymmetry definitively and irrevocably has given way to Proximity.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Two weeks ago we read about the prodigal son who did not even have to say he was sorry before his father forgave him for blowing his inheritance. Last week, the fig tree that had been unproductive for three years avoided any consequences for its failure with only the vaguest possibility that it might produce fruit someday. God's sense of justice is wholly unlike our own. This week, the theme of never having to say your sorry is in full view again.
Jesus's enemies have set the perfect trap for him. The woman they have placed before him is clearly guilty and the punishment under the law of Moses is just as clear: brutal stoning to death (See Deuteronomy 22:22-24). However, the Roman occupiers have made this sort of extra-judicial execution illegal (See John 18:31-32). The Pharisees are giving Jesus an impossible choice: violate the law of Moses and be discredited as a rabbi, or violate the law of the Roman occupiers and face possible prosecution. Jesus chooses a third way that his persecutors did not anticipate: forgiveness. In fact, it appears he couldn't care less about her sin. While he is supposed to be hearing the case against her, he doodles on the ground. When the Pharisees leave, he does not impose a penance or issue a warning. He tells her not to do it again only in the most off-handed way and we can easily imagine he would forgive her again if she was caught again the following day.
These stories are not about repentance. They are not about avoiding bad behavior. These are stories about God's unlimited mercy and, just as importantly, how distasteful we find it.
Photo Credit: El Rio de Luz (The River of Light) Frederic Edwin Church. Courtesy of The U.S. National Gallery of Art
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Is repentance a prerequisite for forgiveness? In this beautiful story, the prodigal son has demanded to receive his inheritance early and with rash bravado leaves his father's house to make his own way in the world. It is a disaster. He is reduced to grinding poverty and forced to return with his tail between his legs to avoid starvation. Before he has even started the journey home, he rehearses what he will say to earn his father's forgiveness. We can imagine him practicing as he walks. He undoubtedly expects recrimination; maybe even outright rejection. But the most remarkable thing happens: his father abandons all decorum and runs out to meet his son. The prodigal son begins his carefully prepared speech but his father interrupts him before he can finish. He doesn't even want to hear it!
God lets the guilty off the hook even if they are not sorry. God does not command, reward or punish. He always forgives. This isn't our idea of justice and God knows it. In the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16) all the workers receive the same wage whether they started first thing in the morning or an hour before the end of the day. The ones who worked the hardest grumble, but God is unmoved. Here, the prodigal son's brother is incensed, but in the economy of God's mercy, everyone gets the same wage regardless of effort.
Jesus tells this story in response to the Pharisees and the scribes who "murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eat with tax collectors." God is not in the business of reward and punishment.
Photo: The First Chapter of Genesis written on an egg in the Israel Museum.